Directed by: John Lee Hancock.
Written by: Robert D. Siegel.
Starring: Michael Keaton (Ray Kroc), Nick Offerman (Dick McDonald), John Carroll Lynch (Mac McDonald), Linda Cardellini (Joan Smith), B.J. Novak (Harry J. Sonneborn), Laura Dern (Ethel Kroc), Justin Randell Brooke (Fred Turner), Kate Kneeland (June Martino), Patrick Wilson (Rollie Smith).
There is a darker movie hiding somewhere in The Founder, that pokes its head out every once in a while and makes you wish the filmmaker had followed that path a little bit further. This is a film that had the potential to be something like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street or Adam McKay’s The Big Short – films that were deliberately fun for a while, until they weren’t – and that’s when you got angry. The character at the center of The Founder is Ray Kroc – played by Michael Keaton – the man who took McDonalds and turned it into an empire. But despite the legend he built for himself, he wasn’t the founder of McDonalds – that would be the McDonald brothers – who Kroc squeezed out of the business eventually, because he knew how to make it big, and they were holding him back. Keaton excels in the film, making Kroc into a guy we first kind of like, and will eventually grow to hate – and for essentially the same reasons. His performance is better than the movie itself – that seems to be confused about what precisely it is.
When the film opens, Kroc is a travelling salesman – trying, unsuccessfully, to sell a multi-mixer – a machine that makes five milkshakes at the same time – something it seems very few businesses need. The one exception is this little restaurant in San Bernardino in California – who needs eight of them. Curious as to why they need to make 40 milkshakes at the same time, Kroc heads West to see the restaurant. It’s run by two brothers – Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) – who gladly give Kroc a tour of their restaurant – the first fast food place around. Their secret is a small menu and as much automation and uniformity as they can get. Kroc knows immediately this needs to be franchised – and somehow talks the brothers into letting him run with it. This is the latest in a series of get rich schemes Kroc has had – and he’s not letting this one go.
When we first meet Kroc, we cannot help but kind of like the guy. He’s sort of sad in the way of Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross – a salesman selling something no one wants (he hasn’t been quite beaten down as much as Levine – but he’s getting there). He wants to be successful – and has tried his whole life to get there. But he’s now in his 50s, has a wife (Laura Dern) who does little but nag him, no kids and nothing to show for his life. When he starts trying to franchise McDonalds, he knows this is it – this is his last chance to succeed big time, and he pours everything he has into it. It doesn’t matter if his contract with the brothers say they maintain control over everything about the restaurants and their food – Kroc is the one out there hustling to make it a success. Eventually, he’ll stop arguing with the brothers, and just start doing whatever the hell he wants to – even over their objections. They threaten to sue – and Kroc knows they would probably win. But he also knows that he has become so big – and the company he founded to lease the restaurants so powerful – that he can last longer in an extended court battle then they can. So, what really, can they do to stop him?
The film really is about how Kroc ends up screwing over the brothers – how he goes from a hustling into a cut throat businessman – and how, perhaps, there really is no difference. Kroc was an asshole at the beginning of the fil – and remains one at the end – the difference is that at the beginning he had no money or power, so he had to eat the shit fed to him – and by the end, he can force others to eat the shit. Still, the movie does seem to perhaps make that turn too abruptly – the scene where he ends his first marriage is crueler than we’ve seen him before, and there’s a few others like that as well. Keaton, to his credit, does nothing to try and soften the character – and essentially plays him the same way. It’s another fine performance from him. Perhaps even better is Offerman and Lynch as the brothers – I don’t think the film sees them as clearly as the actors do. They are, in their own way, businessmen themselves, after the same dollar Kroc is – he’s just better at it than they are, because he’s more cutthroat.
The film was directed by John Lee Hancock – an odd choice for the film. He’s the director who made Saving Mr. Banks a few years ago – another film about a powerful mogul (Walt Disney) who gets his way over the person who actually created something (Emma Thompson as the creator of Mary Poppins). That film was a lot lighter than this one – although I have a feeling Hancock sees them in the same way. After all, in both films, the business screws over the “artist” – but in the process, they end up making something beloved, so can they really be that bad? Hancock doesn’t seem to quite get how bad some of the things Kroc ends up doing are – and he undercuts the impact they could have, by not hitting them harder.
The Founder is still a good movie- but I think a better movie could be made out of this same material. This film almost plays like an ad for McDonalds for a while, grows a little dark, than plays like an ad again – I doubt McDonalds will be all that unhappy with the film. A better film about this material would, could and should make them more upset.